Good habits work where will power fails: “novel” evidence

Working on this site has been a hobby of mine since 2017. I’ve achieved goals I set for working on it regularly for two long stretches, but I also gave myself permission to scale back the effort during one particularly stressful period.

Two years ago this month, my mother died. I’m no easy creature to silence, yet grief holds the power to still my usual ruckus.Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

Mom thought very highly of my writing. She was an extraordinarily competent individual herself, but in arenas such as powering through concrete tasks and meticulous calculation. Mom never pushed me to study “X” or pursue a career as “Y,” instead trusting my ability to forge my own path.

I recall a few instances, however, when Mom spoke of my creative skills with a tone of particular respect—once, almost in awe. Those moments stay with you.

During the most isolating months of the pandemic, one of my exercises in self-soothing was to imagine ways in which the world could be designed to make people safer from future outbreaks of airborne disease. I bored my family by going on about these thoughts, sketching out alternate forms of housing and transportation. If implemented, I envisioned sparing at least some of the population from the prolonged agony of isolation or the need to trade free movement for good health.

Toward the end of last month, I started incorporating* these notions into a novel.

I’ve started many novels before, and I even approached the roughly 2/3 completed mark with one in the early aughts. That was after I left my professional career in technology but before I dedicated myself to the home education of one of my children. Historically, though, writing fiction was my hobby, and I tended to pursue the work when I “felt like it.”

I would get as far as the first burst of enthusiasm took me, but rarely pick up again after leaving off to work, sleep, or tend to the kids.Hand written and self-bound documents

Intriguingly, this time is very, very different. I have to credit the habit of consistent effort cultivated through work on Really Wonderful Things. Twenty days have passed, and I’ve met or exceeded my writing targets for this novel on all but two.

Authoring a novel is one of my oldest, longest-term goals. I never doubted I would get around to it, but it always lived in “future willo’s” inbox. This summer, it has advanced to the top of my priorities assuming the health and safety of my family don’t require sudden, absolute attention.

Blogging has markedly improved my self-discipline as a writer. That’s not why I started the site, but I’m delighted by the development.

“Will power” as a concept for self-improvement fails us, especially in the short-term. Popular understanding of how it works is often wrong. We blame ourselves for problems largely beyond our control while failing to make the sorts of small adjustments that can help us, offering long-term success at living the lives we want.

Will power may desert us when we need it most, but gradual, incremental change geared toward improving the situation of one’s future self is possible for most. Crafting a life which intentionally reinforces positive habits can, over time, improve one’s ability to approach difficult yet meaningful tasks, or, conversely, to coax one away from harmful behaviors.

My novel isn’t done yet, so take my experience with whatever size grain of salt you believe it deserves. I do have over 24,000 words down on 108 pages, though, and every expectation that this time, I’m going to finish this particular book.

I’m still in love with my concept, and, most evenings, I find myself shooing away my family—whom I generally enjoy!—because I’m itching to get back to work.

If I were to write a dedication for this novel right now, it might be to “past willo” for putting in the time working on Really Wonderful Things. “Current willo” has a lot to thank her for.

* Careful readers may have noted these additions to my mid-year update to my personal goals:

  • Write 3 pages per day of novel, —and—
  • Complete first draft of same.

Ironically, though my novel occurs in a world where pandemic illness never recedes, I still view the project as utopian rather than dystopian, and I find the work to be a projection of my fundamental optimism about human nature in spite of our ubiquitous foibles.

Once, I had a headache which precluded interaction with a screen, and the other—weekend—night, I opted to watch a movie with my family because they are important to me, too. It turns out that I struggle mightily to produce creative work before late afternoon, though I’m better at most analytical tasks earlier in the day. Who knew?

Then again, taking one day per week off from an otherwise daily goal could be a reasonable, even helpful adjustment to a work schedule. God herself commanded a routine sabbath rest!

Novels tend to be works of fiction longer than 50,000 words

For the love of living history

My husband claims that I want to live in the past, but I don’t think that is the reason for my passionate love of all sorts of living history experiences. I am the first to admit that I require a hot shower every day to be truly happy, and my physical laziness alone marks me as a modern person.

OSV mill

Water powered mill at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA

It is fair to say I tend toward escapist fantasies, so it could be that simple.

Of course, I think it is more complicated than that.

I think my yearning for the past expresses a real understanding on my part that human beings need to experience tangible human creation on a regular basis to maintain a spiritual connection to our aggregate humanity. Quite simply, we are starving for the unique in our mechanized modern world, not because novelty is titillating, but because humankind’s creative efforts are what feed our souls.

Every teenager recognizes his need to be “different” (i.e., special, unique), and we write it off as a selfish phase. We age into our suburban sameness as our energy dissipates and all of our passions disperse into more moderate pursuits. But take a moment to reflect upon nature, where every snowflake, every tree, every blade of grass is different from its fellows. This is the clay from which we are made, and we, too, are unique in form and in spirit.OSV 2 yellow flowers

I believe that what I yearn for is a lifestyle in which a preponderance of what I experience bears some stamp of a human maker. Let the mass-produced, soulless object be the curiosity. We may find, then, that our ennui is eased. Slowing production of many things to a human scale would certainly ease resource burdens on our little planet, though some will rail against the reduction of consumption as an economic killer.

Whether this reflects God’s creation or nature’s design, I suspect there is power in it. I’ve started with small steps by creating wearable art in my hand-dyed silks, and by sewing a few small items of clothing for my children. I dream of acquiring the skill to turn silk that I dye into gowns to drape the human form in loveliness and comfort.

SCA medieval lady

Medieval SCA garb, hand-sewn but crude

I think this is why I love living history. It isn’t about what really was, but about a life where routine acts are creative, in the most literal sense of crafting that which will be consumed.

I thank God every day for running water, central heating, and always having more than enough food for my growing children, but being grateful for what I have doesn’t stop me from working toward what I hope can be an even more abundant future. Perhaps that abundance will be spiritual, and, in fact, reflect a lower level of consumption.

Originally posted May 8, 2011 via iWeb